Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Good News Is No News
Maybe things don’t change. Several years go by, you turn around and suddenly you’re back in the same place. Not long ago I took a look at NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN for the first time in several years. Beats me why it had been so long but maybe that’s what you sometimes need to do with Best Picture winners, to somehow remove them from that Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. And watching it again I’m not sure the film has deepened so much as it just plays as a cold reminder of how good it always was. The bleak hope that permeates the action, the absolute cynicism which resides deep down inside of it, has only become more acute. You revisit a film away from the hype it can be a little easier to see what’s really going on in there. Maybe I’m just a little older now, too. The pitch-black comedy sprinkled throughout NO COUNTRY doesn’t keep it from being all too aware of the nastiness in the world, the inevitability of the bad shit coming down and there’s not a thing you can do about it because eventually you’re going to lose that coin toss. Like it or not.
When it comes to cynicism, sometimes the question might be how far is too far. After directing his first film THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR in 1941, Billy Wilder spent much of the following decade directing films that (with the exception of the Technicolor Bing Crosby vehicle THE EMPEROR WALTZ) for the most part became progressively darker, more probing into the deep recesses of the human spirit in ways that were sometimes comic, sometimes not so, culminating in the masterpiece that is SUNSET BOULEVARD in 1950. At a certain point in the 50s things seemed to shift for him, the films becoming more openly commercial, star vehicles, comedies, a number of them based on commercially successful stage plays. Coming right in between these two periods was maybe his darkest of all, ACE IN THE HOLE, an original screenplay that went further down into the depths than he ever had and ever would again. Since he left us several years before NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN we’ll never know just what Billy Wilder would have said about it but ACE IN THE HOLE certainly gives me an idea. Long after my first viewing of the film years ago at a massive Wilder retrospective at the Film Forum in New York, ACE still hits me right in the gut, to steal a line from its lead character, every single time I see it. It probably is Billy Wilder’s most cynical work or at the very least his bluntest argument for what humanity is capable of, taking any foul mood he developed in the wake of World War II when he toured the aftermath of the Nazi atrocities and pushing those thoughts to its extreme. There is goodness in ACE IN THE HOLE, there are people who have goodness in them, but they’re mostly powerless and the film discards them essentially because they have no place in what it believes the world is turning into. Which I suppose is how it is.
Exiled to New Mexico after no other paper will hire him, reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) has been cooling his heels at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin for a year, waiting for the big story that will launch him back to the big city. Then out of nowhere that story drops in his lap, almost too perfect—in tiny desert stopover Escudero local tourist shop proprietor Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) has become trapped in a cave-in. His wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) wants to use this as an excuse to finally escape the marriage and that nothing town but Chuck convinces her that she stands to gain from all this as well. As his stories begin to turn up in the paper and the crowds start to appear he also gets the local sheriff (Ray Teal) to go along with his plan to drag out the rescue of Leo and make it the biggest spectacle around. Only Chuck goes a little too far with his plan, putting the perfect grand finale of the big carnival that’s sprouted up in jeopardy.
“I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news I’ll go out and bite a dog,” Chuck Tatum tells his new boss Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall) to sell himself. Maybe ACE IN THE HOLE isn’t a cynical film as much as it’s about a cynical man and the world he creates out of that cynicism. Somewhat based on the real life case of Floyd Collins, who Tatum even mentions at one point as something long-forgotten, ACE IN THE HOLE is very much the work of Billy Wilder and could have been a dark comedy, a very dark comedy. There are certainly points in the film where it really can’t be considered anything else. Maybe that’s cynicism or maybe it’s just reality. In Cameron Crowe’s “Conversations With Wilder” the director tries to downplay that aspect of his films then allows, “Maybe ACE IN THE HOLE,” which does seem a little like an understatement. He was a newspaperman himself in Vienna long ago, after all, so he must have understood where Chuck Tatum was coming from, desperate to get out of Albuquerque “which is pretty Albuquerque” as he tells it and back to New York where he can finally get his chopped chicken livers. Lorraine admiringly mentions to Chuck who’s been pounding away at his typewriter all night that “he sure can make with the words,” something Wilder always certainly had a knack for.
ACE IN THE HOLE (written by Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman) came at a crucial juncture in Wilder’s career—after the all-holy SUNSET BOULEVARD and Wilder’s break with screenwriting partner Charles Brackett who he had worked with since the late 30s. After several films with various writing partners he eventually joined forces with I.A.L. Diamond for 1957’s LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON and the two remained together from then on. But ACE is Wilder’s breaking off with Brackett, breaking off with a half that maybe he felt shackled to at that point—Brackett had apparently wanted nothing to do with DOUBLE INDEMNITY due to its seamy content. With ACE Wilder takes no prisoners, biting into this tale with all the ferociousness imaginable and absolutely unapologetic for the journey it takes, although since the reporter’s byline is actually “Charles Tatum” maybe that first name is some small acknowledgement to his former partner. Either way, the overall effect as more and more people turn up to gawk at what’s happening is unrelenting and Wilder never came anywhere close to it again. The black and white harshness of the New Mexico setting makes it one of the most distinctive looking Billy Wilder films but also one of the most characteristic, a reminder of how anti-color Wilder was for a very long time—New Mexico in its full glory can be a very serene place to visit but that wasn’t how he apparently saw it. There’s no serenity here, no goodness, the Indian spirits people speak of are only meant as warning signs. And if Escudero isn’t swarming over with the masses ready to buy, buy, buy it’s just a barren stretch of emptiness and nothing else.
A flop when it was first released (Paramount also tried it under the title THE BIG CARNIVAL but it didn’t help) ACE IN THE HOLE has never been one of the best known films by Billy Wilder, presumably because it wasn’t an easy film to see for a long time—there’s a readily available DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion now but it never even came out on VHS. It’s an interesting comparison to the acclaimed SUNSET BOULEVARD from the previous year—not only is that film funnier, setting the story in what is essentially a gothic mansion in the middle of Beverly Hills makes it immediately foreign to most people, they can watch it at a remove knowing they’re never going to turn out like William Holden’s Joe Gillis (well, maybe some of us would-be screenwriters do). ACE IN THE HOLE is set out in the middle of the country and dialogue even reels off how many states the multitudes are swarming in from, a reminder that the people watching the film are who Wilder is pointing his finger at, they’re the ones coming whether by car or the ‘Leo Minosa Special’ train that stops nearby to pay to see the spot where the helpless man is trapped. He’s right of course and he still is now—he’s showing us the future of reality TV and cable news networks devoting endless coverage to missing planes. Wilder is toying with the audience as much as Chuck is, he’s the one who moves it all forward. “I’ve met some hard boiled eggs in my time but, you, you’re twenty minutes,” Lorraine tells Tatum (now and forever my favorite line) not with calculation so much as admiration. Her face long since having turned into one giant sneer to go perfectly with her bleached blonde hair, she’s a true noir creation who never seems to have even realized it and she learns fast thanks to his teaching. Chuck is happy to take her along as he pulls the strings on what happens to her husband—I’m your pal, he tells the trapped Leo and the poor guy never even realizes he’s in a Billy Wilder film where those rules don’t apply. “She’s so pretty,” Leo tells Chuck about the wife who has nothing but disdain for him and Wilder immediately dissolves to her proudly watching giant carnival trucks that read “The Great S&M Amusement Corp.” drive on in, a series of two shots which proclaims Wilder’s feelings about relationships between men and women more succinctly than just about anything else in his career.
If there’s a flaw in the film that sometimes nags me in the back recesses of my brain during some viewings it’s that Wilder is almost trying too hard to make this all so venal, bending over backwards just a little too much to display Chuck’s nastiness in risking Leo—but that still doesn’t mean Wilder is wrong in what he’s showing us. After money, after glory, after the Pulitzer, Chuck gets the carnival to seep into everyone, just like that damn novelty song “We’re Coming Leo” that eventually gets heard on an endless loop which is brilliant in its awfulness—after only thirty seconds it’s trapped in our head forever. Lorraine’s earlier joke that they’ll bring a brass band out for Leo essentially comes true in the worst way possible. With the sheriff and his trusty rattlesnake on Chuck’s side no one has a chance. Loyal photographer Herbie (Bob Arthur) is only too happy to go along with Chuck, not thinking of anything beyond that. Radio interviewers covering the scene don’t do much other than say how ‘wonderful’ this rescue operation is while asking witnesses how ‘wonderful’ they think it is too. The visiting press from his beloved New York that Chuck is only too happy to thumb his nose at never get anywhere close to the man in jeopardy they’re on the scene to cover. Leo’s father is mournfully hopeful, but powerless. All his mother, without an audible line in the whole film, can do is pray. The countless masses are represented by the visiting Federber family, led by a goofball father (Frank Cady) who works for Pacific All Risk Insurance--Fred MacMurray’s insurance company in DOUBLE INDEMNITY--and Wilder seems determined to put them into as many shots as possible. They’re the “Mr. & Mrs. America” Chuck speaks of—not unfeeling but gullible, suckers, just looking to go along for the ride at the carnival and not knowing any better.
Closer to Wilder’s own viewpoint is Porter Hall’s newspaper editor/publisher Mr. Boot, who serves as much of a conscience to the main character as Edward G. Robinson does in DOUBLE INDEMNITY--representing all that is noble in the world, maybe overly cautious with his belt & suspenders but a man with decency as well as the ability to express what the other characters can’t. Cunning as Chuck can be, even Boot knows how good a reporter he is, just one that doesn’t think his plan through enough to know that instead of saving Leo they’re doing the exact opposite, winding up killing a man just as much as Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff did. That drill set up far above Leo making that continuous pounding is like a clock of doom, marking every second closer to his demise and ultimately driving him mad. The talk of the Indian spirits that caused the cave-in in the first place is forgotten about. Clearly, the spirits of capitalism are even worse. “Everybody’s paying for it,” Lorraine says to justify the carnival being built around them and that’s all that matters. Even the more lighthearted moments of Hugo Friedhofer’s score manage to sound like a march towards doom. ACE IN THE HOLE was released in 1951, a timeframe even alluded to when Tatum shouts at Boot that it’s “the second half” of the twentieth century and his loyal assistant Herbie wants to get going, not back to the antiquated world that Boot represents. “Going where?” the editor sadly replies. Going to 2015, I imagine. It’s almost more potent when viewed today because of how long ago Wilder knew the way things were going. Any film that tries to emulate ACE IN THE HOLE, like Costa-Gavras’ now-forgotten 1997 drama MAD CITY, just comes off as old news in comparison, ready to wrap fish in.
But in 1951 ACE IN THE HOLE may have been as far as Wilder or anyone could have gone which may account for Wilder’s retreat to commercial stability. He wanted to keep his career going, after all. STALAG 17 followed a few years later. A big hit based on a hit play. The likes of SABRINA and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH followed that, big glossy movies meant to be hits and they were and eventually we got THE APARTMENT but that’s another story. Maybe ACE IN THE HOLE just left him with nowhere else to go with those themes so when that happens you kind of need Audrey Hepburn. ACE IN THE HOLE is definitely a look at how Wilder saw America in 1951 and how he saw humanity itself, for that matter. Whether that view was cynical or merely pragmatic could be argued. Either way, it’s clear that the director wishes otherwise so the young photographer Herbie could just stay at his desk in Albuquerque and never be exposed to what Tatum has engineered, so Leo could actually make it out whether Lorraine sticks around or not. “I’m sorry,” Leo says during his final moments when confessing his sins. We know he has nothing to be sorry for so the camera is correctly on Chuck at that point, who of course does. Several years later Wilder adapted his visual style to the arrival of CinemaScope and even continued to work largely in black & white as long as he could, so his harsh visuals were still there. But nothing topped this one. The legendary final shot and line of THE APARTMENT could be said to represent all that is good in the world, the best of what we can ever really hope to achieve in life. The devastatingly unflinching end of ACE IN THE HOLE is maybe how it all inevitably turns out because sooner or later you’re going to go too far in that quest for your own personal glory. That’s the way it is.
You can feel the hunger Kirk Douglas brings to Chuck Tatum, not thinking of the consequences of his actions until it’s too late and he’s every bit as determined in performance as Tatum is to get back to New York. As feverish as he is at times it all seems totally genuine, down to the newspaperman’s bones--he hasn’t quite become Kirk Douglas doing Kirk Douglas yet. It’s one of my favorite performances by him and the grip he maintains on this determination is palpable down to the very last second. Jan Sterling and that sneer trapped on her face matches him totally word for word and the wheels turning in Lorraine’s head as she realizes what she can really gain from all this are just about visible. A brief shot of her near the end of turning away from a window as she learns something says it all. The various character actors throughout all pop in their roles—Gene Evans, star of Sam Fuller’s PARK ROW and THE STEEL HELMET plays the deputy sheriff—but the total decency in Porter Hall’s newspaper editor stands out to me, particularly in contrast to the villains and more comical roles (including in DOUBLE INDEMNITY) the actor played during his career. He has maybe four scenes but throughout them, including his very last moment and final dialogue onscreen, he gives the film its humanity as well as its genuine hope for the future that it wouldn’t have otherwise.
Sometimes I visit Billy Wilder’s grave at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery and for whatever reason this is the film I think about the most when I do. Of course, no one cares anymore how much ACE IN THE HOLE flopped when it came out and by a certain point maybe he didn’t either. One source has the director, after musing over how the film lost him power at Paramount declared, “Fuck them all--it is the best picture I ever made.” Even Charles Brackett wrote about it with admiration. I’m never sure what my pick for the best Billy Wilder film is and if you ask I’ll probably give you a different answer on a different day but this one is certainly in the running. As much as I cherish THE APARTMENT which I’ll sometimes name as my favorite film, as enjoyable as DOUBLE INDEMNITY always is, I suppose I look at ACE IN THE HOLE with all its bitterness about the world and think about what films really mean to me, why this one affected me so much back then and why it continues to now. It remains in my gut as I wonder if I’m getting more cynical as time goes on or just more aware of how the world really works and how it’s affected by all the Chuck Tatums out there. Maybe more than anything, it’s a reminder of how Billy Wilder’s films matter more as time goes on. That’s the sort of change I can live with.